‘Girls Gone Wild,’ stripped to its essence

Back when I was a roving cultural reporter and movie critic for a Texas newspaper, I was assigned the dubious task of covering the arrival in town of the “Girls Gone Wild” crew at a local dance club. Pointing a throng of cameras at a small stage, the “GGW” crew cajoled local women to partake in a strip contest with cash and travel awards. No matter your morals — it’s complicated — I viewed this as a curious sociological excursion.

This is how the night went down, and how I put it into words …   

Lauren is not getting naked. 

Somehow, the bleached blonde with a toffee tan thinks that a girl can get wild without really getting wild. That in this day and age a girl can attain most righteous wildness by spurning the fundamental step of giving the public a peek. 

What gumdrop world is she living in? 

When the video cameras from “Girls Gone Wild” come to your town — and they came to Austin the other night — there are certain expectations, and every single one of them has to do with bare skin. The “GGW” cameras do odd things to young women. Naughty things. Namely, they inspire women to lift their tops and expose themselves, often while their tongues hang out sloppily. This is called wild. 

Not, says Lauren. 

“I will not be showing (anything). Absolutely not. No way. It’s called ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ not ‘Girls Gone Naked,’ ” says Lauren, who, like many in this story, withheld her last name. The 21-year-old with a leonine mane of yellow hair and jeans low enough to reveal lots of red silk thong works at a bar and is studying to get her real estate certification. 

“I don’t look down on any girls who are wild enough to do that. To each her own,” she says. “But that’s just not my style. You’ve got to leave room for the imagination, you know.” 

Thirty minutes later, Lauren was taking it off. 

There she was, on stage at country-dance warehouse Midnight Rodeo in South Austin, gleefully lifting her Girls Gone Wild mini-tank top for about 700 howling, whooping, screaming, yelling, barking, caterwauling young men, who were apparently seeing their first bare breasts. 

Writhing with professional panache and shooting a carnal glare at the boys, Lauren’s soft-spoken modesty melted, then hardened into Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.” 

Woooo-yeeahh-owww! went the men. 

Ha! went the dozen women on stage. 

The women, ages 18 to 23, were competing in a “Girls Gone Wild” talent contest (is lap dancing a talent?), the winner of which will appear on a “GGW” pay-per-view event. 

The direct-order video company’s Austin stop was part of a 31-city tour that’s brought camera crews to San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas and Lubbock. First prize this night was $100 cash and an all-expenses paid trip to Panama City, Fla., where the winner will take part in another “GGW” contest. 

It’s a common perception that in party, aka college towns, Mardi Gras has become a kind of open-air flash ’n’ flesh bazaar. Grunting young men proffer tacky plastic beads to greedy women, who gladly, if drunkenly, haul their tops over their chests and under their chins for impromptu peekaboos. The boys go wild. 

Joe Francis, the young multimillionaire who created “Girls Gone Wild,” decided several years ago to bring video cameras to these and similar spring breaky gatherings. Give the girls beads, make them go wild, tape it and sell it. 

“GGW” boasted more than $90 million in direct-response orders last year and the brand has become shorthand for “drunken-girl antics.” “GGW” trades in “normal people” and avoids pros and strippers, Francis says. 

Any young woman will lift her top for the low price of guaranteed male attention, he says. “You’d be surprised, man,” says Francis by phone from his L.A. office. “Every time I go out, I see a girl who I thought would never do it.” 

Joe, meet Lauren. 

“I know, I know,” says Lauren, holding her forehead like a kid who’s been caught breaking a promise. She’s backstage, being escorted by the “GGW” crew to the winner’s circle. Lauren won the contest. 

“It was the heat of the moment,” she explains. 

Sociology of a shirt lift 

“I’m not drunk enough,” says Crystal W., a bespectacled blonde in a white tank top. 

Tonight, she’s leaving the stripping to her peers. “I encourage them. If you have a beautiful body, why can’t you share it with everyone else?” 

Crystal’s friends have been wheedling her to do it all night. “Why do I have to go on stage to do it? I can do it for you myself. I don’t need that extra push. I do it for my friends all the time.” 

Crystal is a good friend. 

On the other side of the rambling, neon-splashed dance hall — where bar servers sling Day-Glo shots in test tubes and a guy named Robert is coaxing his girlfriend Stephanie to get on stage — giggle Amanda Brown and Melissa Dotson, 19-year-old University of Texas students. 

The brunettes are dressed in tight, slight outfits that would pass for loincloths in some cultures. They rushed to Midnight Rodeo when they heard about the event on the radio. 

“We’re lookin’ to be famous,” Melissa says. 

“We get off on it,” Amanda says. 

“We’re not doing it against our will in any way. Not everybody has to like it,” says Melissa. “We’re not porn stars. We’re 19, we’re experimenting, we’re having fun. We’re out there.” 

On stage, Amanda and Melissa gyrate, kiss each other and lift up each other’s shirts. (They eventually take second and third place.) 

The boys hoot with stadium-rock abandon. They slaver and yell obscenities. Their eyes bulge like bloodshot moons. The overall expression on their faces is something like this: !!!!!!!! 

Wes Parnell, a slightly slurring 22-year-old UT student, assumes the role of resident sociologist and human behaviorist. He speaks waveringly, but with confidence. He spies two young women registering for the contest. 

“Oh, they’re going to take it off,” Wes assures us. “They don’t have a choice. When they get up on stage and start drinking alcohol, they start doing things that they don’t know they’re doing. They love it, they absolutely love it. Girls start seeing what the guys think and the guys trick them into doing more.” 

There’s a study of what makes girls go wild waiting to be vetted for psychological illumination. We can listen to Wes, or we can drag in an expert in feminist media studies. 

That would be Mary Kearney, assistant professor of radio-television-film at UT, who explains, “There’s some recognition when you’re a woman in your late teens and early 20s that sexuality is a form of power for you. And for a lot of younger women, it’s the only form of power they have. They are told on a daily basis that their primary goal in life is to get male attention. So if they’re getting it by lifting up their top, so be it.” 

Especially for middle-class white women, Kearney says, “This might be a chance for them to feel sexy in the moment, for girls to be wild. It’s sluttish behavior, and girls might be pushing the boundaries for themselves, to be like, ‘Ooo, I’m wild and crazy!’ Of course, they don’t really understand that it’s a pretty conventional climate for girls and women to be rebellious.” 

We return to the wisdom of Wes. “Girls have such low self-esteem, they need guys to cheer ’em on,” he insists. 

“I don’t have low self-esteem. I just don’t feel like being a slut.” That’s a brunette named Chanbra, who’s been encircled by several boys begging her to join the contest. One of them thrusts a cocktail into her hand. 

“It’s just for fun, just for fun,” says a guy. 

“I know . . .” Chanbra sounds breathless and confused. 

“Just do it. Please,” says another guy. 

“This is the third time I’ve been told to do it, and I’m not doing it. Sorry, y’all,” Chanbra says, and leaves. 

“Well, lost cause.” 

The call of the ‘Wild’ 

A petite young woman named Joanna bolts off the crowded stage mid-show and beats a hasty retreat backstage. She pulls off her cowboy hat and sighs with what sounds like relief. She was fleeing. 

“I couldn’t do that to myself,” Joanna says. “I’m not like that. I think it’s trashy. Looking at the crowd, I decided I’m not putting myself out there as a piece of meat. I’m shaking I’m so nervous.” 

Why was she up there then? 

She was egged on by friends, despite her protests. “I thought it was fun being part of the scene, and then it just got too far.” 

Away from male taunts and chants of “Show your . . .,” Crystal W. looks exhilarated. She wound up on stage flashing the crowd after all.

“I was naked! I don’t know why,” she gasps. “I can’t believe I did that because I come here a lot and I know everyone. Oh, my God.” 

Woodworth was persuaded by her friends, including Kimberly Hyde, who joined her on stage. 

“I’m just crazy like that,” Kimberly says. “It was a blast.”

It’s nothing new for her. She flashes her guy friends upon request. 

“Wanna see?” she asks.

McConaughey, the mensch

Meeting celebrities is easy. Interviewing them is a breeze. They are generally polished to a professional sheen. They know how to play the game, which is patently transactional. Some are harder than others (I’m squinting at you, Paul Thomas Anderson). Matthew McConaughey? He’s a cinch.

A good ol’ boy from East Texas, with a boingy twang, squinchy blue eyes, and bounding with bonhomie, McConaughey is much like what he seems: a smart, friendly dude you might want to shoot a shot with. He’s a charismatic lava lamp, alive and aglow.

To a journalist like me in 1998 — young, a smidge green — he was the most caring, amicable guy around. I was having a face-to-face interview with the actor in a Beverly Hills hotel room during a junket for “The Newton Boys,” Richard Linkater’s ill-fated western-comedy. A Texas guy, McConaughey was fascinated that I’d recently relocated from California to Austin for a newspaper job as a film critic. 

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He seemed genuinely interested, and we talked all things Austin and Texas, acting and movies. And from the room balcony he pointed out the groovy ‘70s-style van in the parking lot that he was driving cross-country for the hell of it. He was 27. We bonded enough that he’d remember me for years afterward. 

Like when he was walking the red carpet at the premiere of his 1999 comedy “Edtv” and he spotted me, grabbed my hand, pulled me aside and asked me how I was enjoying my new Texas hometown. He was sincere and serious, with laser eye-contact, shutting out the bustle around him. Then he smiled wide, cheeks caving into dimples, before moving on down the line. 

He didn’t have to do that. He could have said hi, answered my softball questions and walked on. But he was cool, concerned, a gentleman. He had class. 

Months later, when I ran into him at a Wendy’s on the University of Texas campus before a rare screening of Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 “Some Came Running,” McConaughey seemed a little out of his element, a tad awkward, though he still made a point of making me feel welcome and an equal. He spoke in a hushed drawl. He barely smiled. He kept things low-key. I introduced him to my girlfriend. He bought a large Coke. He sat in the middle row, we sat in the back.

The relationship between journalist and subject/source is a dicey one. They are rarely seamless. There’s a give and take, a perilous reciprocity that often leaves one party feeling burned. And so there’s this:

McConaughey was working the red carpet for the local premiere of Kevin Costner’s 1999 baseball melodrama “For the Love of the Game” at UT. He was beaming, strutting out of a black limo, in all white and all alone.  

He isn’t in the movie, he was just a celeb guest at the gala. And he was chomping a hunk of gum like cud. He approached me affably, answered two questions, then sauntered into the auditorium, chased by hearty cheers. 

I report details. I like what’s called “color” in my stories. So in my piece about the screening I prefaced McConaughey’s quotes with: “He was conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum.” Readers want to know each iota of their beloved celebrities’ behavior. This, I thought, was a telling detail — innocuous but revealing. Or so I thought.

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Matthew, gum, chew.

In 2003, four years after this gum-chewing reportage, the Austin Film Society threw a 10-year anniversary bash for the release of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age masterwork “Dazed and Confused,” which was made in Austin and co-starred a cocky, hilarious young newcomer named Matthew McConaughey. 

A red carpet press-line was formed. Here comes McConaughey, who I haven’t seen in four years. He is arm-in-arm with two young women, and chewing gum. I hurl him a question. He stops on a dime before me, and says, pointing to his mouth, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?” Dimples flashed, this time with a shit-eating grin, and he brusquely walked away with an up-yours swagger. 

Perhaps, just maybe, I had pissed him off.

Forward five years, to 2008. I hadn’t seen People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (2005) since the “Dazed and Confused” screening and I was a little nervous as I was scheduled to interview him for the micro-indie comedy “Surfer, Dude” in Austin.  

He was there, in shorts and sandals, hair mussed and shaggy, mood ebullient. He greeted me with glowing teeth and cavernous dimples. He was almost ecstatic. He loved this movie. He was back. 

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McConaughey during our “Surfer, Dude” interview

At the end of a very friendly chat, I screwed up the nerve to ask him about that day when he repeated back to me, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?”

He laughed heartily. “I didn’t like the use of the adverb ‘conspicuously,’” he told me, practically slapping my knee. “If you hadn’t used that word I wouldn’t have cared!” He was over it. We cracked up.

The intricate dance of writer and subject is a fragile one. Like that, it can topple in misunderstanding. It can snap on the perceived power of one simple word. But people, even movie stars with eggshell egos, are resilient, forgiving and, sometimes, like McConaughey, true mensches.

Just a typical day out in Austin, Texas

A long time ago in the hip and happening capital of Texas …

AUSTIN — Motorcycles have their place: soaring over rows of parked trucks; buzzing maniacally inside the Globe of Death; revving on stage at Judas Priest concerts. But they really stank up the city over the weekend, when nearly a billion rumbled in with their owners and the chicks who ride on the back for the annual hog-athon.

The bikes were gorgeous, exotic creatures: fetishistically sculpted chrome and steel, sparkling in the sun, low-slung and high-maintenance. Many appeared like they just vrooomed out of TV’s “American Chopper.” And they were everywhere downtown, rolling in parade formations and shredding the muggy air with hot chainsaw screams and crackling flatulence.

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In other words, they were noisy and they took every single parking space. (One bike per meter? Please. You can stuff four of those things between the painted lines.) Still, I’m glad these hairy, leather-laden compatriots, who seem to believe a well-tied head scarf serves the same protective function as a helmet, enjoyed the weekend fellowship and Austin’s renowned ethos of tolerance. It gives the city that rowdy edge.

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Timothy “Speed” Levitch

I didn’t even mind that the bikes’ symphonic violence (thousands of tubas played in a rain of napalm) sporadically drowned out my conversation with Speed Levitch at Casino El Camino. Through the bar’s ambient chatter, through the jukebox punk and metal, the choppers chopped.

Speed’s the star of the garrulous documentaries “The Cruise” and “Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor.” The movies reveal a young eccentric whorling through funny, far-out reveries, spinning streamers of soliloquy around the neon rave of his own mind. He’s a performance artist, a living one-man show, radiating an internal spotlight. He’s pretty charismatic, if kind of freaky.

Part poet, part gypsy-hippy, Speed has lots of friends in town and performs here often. He came from New York to do his show over the weekend. Saturday night he was merely hanging at one of his favorite local bars to get one of his favorite local dishes, Casino’s eggplant sandwich.

As we wove through flotillas of idling two-wheelers, Speed told how he’s reinvented his famed New York tour-guide shtick into ambulatory sidewalk theater. (Watch the above movies and you’ll understand.) He was inspired by a friend who coached the late Spalding Gray, Speed said. “He told me, ‘Do what you feel and keep a clear communication with your soul, amplify it, and then call it theater.’ ”

Then Speed sped off.

Later, at the city’s premiere arts venue: Some two hundred people attended Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi fugue “Solaris” at the Paramount Theatre.

The turnout surprised me. “Solaris” isn’t action-packed summer adventure. It has more in common with Ingmar Bergman, fog and glaciers than George Lucas, androids and lasers. It’s a challenging, deeply spiritual and very long trip. It’s been called the Soviet answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But Kubrick’s film is “Spaceballs” compared to the abstruse, though fascinating, eye-squinchingly wise “Solaris.”

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Nearly everyone endured all three hours, despite an intermission — an invitation to flee. As the red velvet curtains closed over an elegant “The End” tag, the audience sat in dumbfounded silence. Eventually, murmurs were heard. Blood returned to vital organs.

I’m picturing some of these brave souls walking to their cars in a stun-gun stupor. They drive silently through the dark, the radio off. At home, they strip, lie on their bed in the dark, and softly weep.

Far in the distance, a chopper revs and groans.